“This place is kinda creepy,” Yume observed with a shudder.

     She and Yoshiki walked down cracked, uneven pavement through the streets of a city in ruin. The only light was from the moons. Toppled buildings lay like dismembered corpses, their support beams, brick and sheetrock scattered across the ground. Shattered glass sparkled with starlight, crunching underfoot. The structures that still stood were sagging, some partially destroyed. Not even animals seemed to want to inhabit the abandoned city- there was no trace of any living thing but the weeds that grew copiously everywhere.

     “Kinda creepy? Looks like a horror flick,” Yoshiki replied. Feeling Yume shudder again, he smiled, his teeth bright in the dark. “Aw, c’mon, you’re not scared of some old buildings, are you?”

     “No,” Yume replied sullenly.

     “Listen…” Yoshiki’s tone turned serious. “I’m sorry about what I said before. I was outta line, saying that to you. Kaiya said you did a great job tonight.”

     “It’s alright. I’m sorry, too. I know I was being really stubborn… It’s just that, well, you guys don’t know what it’s like, sitting all night next to the phone, wanting to scream every time it rings, thinking that this time, maybe…” She trailed off. “At least now I know exactly what it is you guys do. Maybe I won’t be as scared all the time.”

     “Look, Pigtails,” Yoshiki tugged her hair playfully. “Now you know. You proved to all of us how tough you are. Next time, go home.”

     Yume didn’t reply, but nodded briefly. Abruptly, she spoke again after walking on a few steps.

     “Yoshiki… Is Renta okay?”

     “Last I saw him, he was riding off with the rest of Sirrah. I’m sure he’s fine… which means you have a date.”

     “Shut up, Yoshiki.” Yume was glad her brother couldn’t see her blushing in the dark.

     They walked a ways in silence. Yume was so deep in thought that it wasn’t until she turned to say something to her brother that she realized he was gone.

     “Yoshiki?” She froze, turning her head this way and that. He was nowhere in sight. “This isn’t funny. Come out.”

     She received no reply.

     “Come on. You’re being an ass.”

     Yume waited five solid minutes, alone on the devastated pavement, before she finally said, in a very small voice,

     “Oh, crap.”

 

     Uneme felt a hand upon his shoulder. Without thought, he drew his gun and whipped around, a breath from pulling the trigger. That breath was drawn as a gasp when his eyes focused on who it was he was about to blow the brains out of.

     “Hullo,” Mirai said with a cheery wave. “Oh… are you going to shoot me?”

     “No,” he replied, holstering the gun. “What in the name of all that is holy are you doing here?”

     “I missed you guys. So I followed you.”

     “How?” Uneme’s face flickered repeatedly through emotions- shock, horror, disbelief.

     “I drove a car!” Mirai bounced where she stood, overjoyed with her experience. “I didn’t know I could drive a car. Cars go so fast! But not as fast as you on your motorcycle.”

      “Mirai,” Uneme eyed her sternly. “Where did you get a car?”

     “I borrowed it, from one of the Musubiki…” Her face fell. “But I don’t know if they’ll want it back now. It looks a little different.”

     “You borrowed it? Who gave you a car?”

     “I don’t know whose it is. I kinda… Well, the day you left… There were these keys, see… and everyone was sleeping… It’s a bit hazy.”

     “What do you mean the car looks different?”

     “Um… I ran into a couple of… trees, and… stuff.” Mirai gnawed her lip. “Are you mad at me?”

     Uneme knew there was no point in chiding her. It was like trying to talk sense into a chipmunk. I’ll just return her tomorrow, with Quen, and explain what happened. By the Great Cat, those assholes had better believe me.

     “Forget it, Mirai.”

     He let out an ‘oof’ as she jumped into his arms, squeezing him tightly.

     “I’m so happy to see you!” she exclaimed.

     Uneme was spared further embarrassment by Hironah, who emerged out of the dark.

     “I can’t find Kaiya,” she stated. Suddenly realizing who was standing before her, she cried, “Mirai!”

     “Hello, Hironah!” answered Mirai happily. “You want Kaiya? He went in. Quen was with him. Kaiya didn’t look too happy about that, but you know how Quen can be so stubborn.”

     “Went in? Went in where?” Hironah asked in confusion.

     “In there.” Mirai gestured toward the dark streets around them. “In.”

     “I don’t get it. What do you mean, ‘in’? We’re already in.”

     “No, we’re out. They’re in.”

     “In where?”

     “In there.” Mirai gestured again. Hironah sighed in frustration.

     “I’d better go look for them.”

     “We should stick together,” Uneme put in. “It’s probably easy to get lost around here. I’ll mark us a trail as we go.”

     “Alright.” Turning, Hironah called over her shoulder. “Seiken!” Her voice echoed eerily in the stillness.

     “Yeah?” he asked, rising up from where he sat about a block away and walking over.

     “Uneme and I are going to look for Quen and Kaiya. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Yoshiki and Yume for a while either. You stay here and wait for us, okay?”

     “Sure, Hironah,” Seiken answered uneasily. He eyed Mirai with surprise.

     “Mirai, wait with Seiken,” Uneme ordered.

     “Okay!” She replied brightly, taking the Decameron’s arm. He jumped, eyes wide with alarm. “Oh, did I hurt you?”

     “N-no…”

     “We’re going,” Hironah informed them, turning away. “You kids be good.”

     “Bye-bye!” Mirai smiled and waved enthusiastically. “Have a nice trip!”

     As they walked further into the darkness of the ruin, Hironah cast a sidelong glance at Uneme.

     “What’s Mirai doing here?” she asked.

     “She apparently stole a car and followed us. Quen’s going to be apoplectic. Sounds like she trashed the car, too.”

     “They can’t blame you for this. You had nothing to do with it,” Hironah stated, sensing the hidden worry in his words.

     “They can blame whoever they want. Besides, what are they gonna do? Fire me twice?”

     “I don’t know how you put up with her anyway. Watching her all day would’ve driven me nuts.”

     “I didn’t mind it so much. It’s not Mirai’s fault the Musubiki turned her brains to mush. I feel kinda sorry for her, actually. She’s a nice girl.”

     “So Kaiya was right. The Musubiki did do that to her.”

     “Well, they found that one of the reasons all the previous experiments failed was because the other subjects couldn’t handle the visions. Most of them killed themselves. With Mirai, they tried re-wiring her brain a bit, so she’d forget the things she saw. Unfortunately, that left her with the mentality of an eight-year-old.”

     “That’s… I don’t even know what to say. I had no idea the Musubiki was doing stuff like that.”

     “They’re getting a bit carried away, if you ask me,” Uneme said grimly. Changing his tone, he put a hand on Hironah’s arm. “Wait here. I’m going to put a marker on that column.”

     “Okay.” Hironah watched him walk away, over to the column he’d indicated. She had the strange, almost dizzying impression that the night was growing darker, blackness moving in to cut them off from one another. Shaking her head, she tried to tell herself that she was being silly. She strained to see Uneme in the gathering darkness, but he faded from her sight. He’s just standing in a shadow. Even as she thought this, Hironah gazed up to see that the moons and stars above were no longer visible. There, just cloudy.

     She waited a few minutes in silence, until her sense of unease overcame her.

     “Uneme?” she called. She received no answer.

     Disturbed, Hironah went over to where she’d seen him last. She found the column, but didn’t see him near.

     “Uneme?”

     He was nowhere to be found.

 

     Quen had insisted on going with Kaiya to look for Yoshiki and Yume.

     “It’s alright. I saw the direction they went in,” Kaiya had said. “You shouldn’t be walking around too much on that leg.”

     “It’s no cause for concern. You shouldn’t go alone. It could be dangerous.”

     “There’s nobody here but us.”

     “So we assume. It’s foolhardy to walk around alone. I’ll go with you. I’m perfectly fit to do so. Seiken’s seen to my leg already. Shall we?”

     “Really, Quen-”

     “Are we going or not?”

     “Okay, let’s go. They went this way.”

     Kaiya led, not really paying attention to whether or not Quen was keeping up. He shared Hironah’s distaste for Meena’s son, mostly for the same reasons. Kaiya had his own reasons as well, dark sensations that Quen was soulless, a vessel without purpose. The Night’s Herald reprimanded himself whenever these feelings surfaced. Quen was a human being, no more or less than Kaiya himself. Yet the idea kept rising to nag him, no matter how many times he tried to convince himself that he was wrong. Quen was somehow too cold, too alien in nature to be a part of humanity.

     As Kaiya walked the dark and broken streets, he began to wonder if he was being completely unfair. He’d only really talked to Quen after hearing about him from Hironah, and the first time he’d been agitated by what he’d seen at the Zeit. He and Hironah had disagreed about Seiken… and Kaiya’s knowledge of the Decameron came from the warmth he’d shown first, not the other way around. Perhaps, if he was nicer to Quen, maybe he’d open up a little, become a bit more invested in the people around him. Thinking along these lines, Kaiya turned his head a bit and said,

     “You know, Quen, I was thinking…”

     When he received no reply, Kaiya went on.

     “I’ve always been pretty curious about the Musubiki and what you guys do. I was pretty amazed by some of the stuff I saw at the Zeit. Which parts were you involved with?”

     Still, Quen didn’t answer. Kaiya turned to look at him, and found himself quite alone.

     I guess he gave up on me, the Night’s Herald thought. I really was being kind of a jerk.

     Promising himself that he’d be nicer to Quen next time he saw him, Kaiya plunged on through the darkened streets alone.

   

     “Well, I guess we should go in now,” Mirai stated solemnly.

     “No, Mirai, we told Hironah and Uneme we’d wait for them,” Seiken answered calmly, not at all worried by her proposal.

     “No, we should go in, too. Otherwise, they’ll be in a different place from us.”

     “They’ll come out somewhere else?”

     “Maybe not. But if they come back here and we didn’t go in, they’ll be in a different place.”

     “Mirai, that doesn’t make any sense. If they come back here, and we’re all here together, then how could they be in a different place?”

     “Because of the chasm.”

     “What chasm?” Seiken spoke with patience. He felt confused and frustrated, but figured it was best to try and make sense of Mirai’s ramblings… if that was possible.

     “They won’t be able to trust you. You won’t be able to understand. Your fates will split.”

     “I don’t understand now.”

     “That’s because we’re out,” Mirai stated cheerily. She stood, smiling down at the baffled Seiken. “In we go!” She bent down and kissed him briefly on the cheek, then straightened and ran, arms extended, calling, “Chase me!”

     “Damn it! Mirai!” The Decameron yelled after her as he sprinted down the dead streets in her wake.

 

     “Yume! Where are you? I swear, if you make me call you one more time…” Yoshiki searched frantically for his sister, calling amongst the crumbling buildings. She neither answered nor showed herself. Where could she have gotten to?

     It was then that the noise descended. It was the sound of war- barked orders, crackling gunfire, rumbling tanks and bomb blasts. Yoshiki cast about in panic, but saw nothing more than the empty streets and alleys all around him. Yet the sound seemed to have filled the space as though whatever battle that raged was happening right there.

     He was nearly deafened by the sound of a mortar striking a building. In shock, he found himself sprawled on the pavement, debris raining down on him. Yoshiki rose quickly, drawing his gun. Slowly, ghost-like, the battle began to materialize out of the darkness. He watched in horror as men appeared- soldiers- along with tanks and other war machines. So stricken was he by the sight that he could only stand, staring.

     Pain broke the spell. An unseen weapon left a deep gash on Yoshiki’s cheek. The phantom warrior who’d cut him faded into view, readying his sword for another attack. Yoshiki raised his gun and fired.

 

     “Uneme?” Hironah called again. Shocked by a sudden chill wetness on her feet, seeping through her boots, she looked down to find that she was standing ankle deep in water. Was the city flooding? She could hear no sounds of rushing water… perhaps it was seeping out of the sewers. The air had grown misty, a stagnant reek hanging over the ruined streets.

     “Uneme!” she cried again, rushing around the broken columns with the vain hope that he would appear. All she could hear was the sound of her own feet splashing through the water. When she fell still once more, she realized that the water had no current, it lay stagnant and rank. She opened her mouth to cry out in one last attempt, but found herself shocked when the name that issued forth was not the one she’d intended.

     “Kaiya!”

     He was here, somewhere in this forsaken city. He wouldn’t be afraid. If she could find him, he would soothe away her fears, the way he’d always done, since they were children. It had been to Kaiya that she’d run after her nightmares. It was on him that she’d leaned for so many years, relying on him to ease her burdens as well as carry his own. She could count on Kaiya. When she found him, he would help her laugh away her terror of a bunch of crumbling cement and scraggly weeds.

     “Kaiya!” she yelled out again, turning to run, to race through the streets until she found him. She was brought up short by the sound of a voice, her own perhaps, speaking in her mind.

     “Don’t be stupid. You’re here all alone.”

 

     Quen looked back and forth with calm precision. Kaiya was gone, that much was certain. Stubborn bastard. If he’d wanted to be alone so badly, why didn’t he just say so? People puzzled Quen. They never seemed to want to be plain about things, instead choosing to dance around truths, giving reasons to their opinions that often had little to do with the root of the matter. Why was that?

     His mother had told him that there was convention, politeness, rules that people followed. The rules were something Quen could not understand. Why couldn’t Kaiya simply have said,

     “Thanks, but I want to go by myself. If you come with me, I’ll just try to get away from you anyway”?

     Why was it that all their conversations died as soon as he showed his face? Why did Yume smile nervously and fidget? Why did Seiken cringe even more for him than for the others? Why didn’t they all just say “You give me the creeps” and be done with it?

     It seems I’m failing.

 

     “Mirai!” Where did she go? Which way? Trista, Uneme’s going to kill me!

     Seiken skidded to a halt, panting. He had to admit defeat. He had no idea where Mirai had run to. For all he knew, she was hiding in one of the desolate buildings, waiting to spring on him as soon as he passed by. With a pained sigh, he forced himself to come to grips with the fact that he’d lost her. Maybe I should go back.

     Maybe I shouldn’t.

     When Uneme returned, he’d be furious over the loss of Mirai. If Uneme was angry, Hironah would be as well. Seiken would have to endure their shouts and belittling until he was sent packing with his tail between his legs. What would be the point of returning to wait for them if it was only to be reprimanded and packed off? This wasn’t his fault. And what did these people mean to him anyway? What difference did it make if he disappeared back into his life of solitary wandering? He could stay here in this crumbling ruin until he was sure they’d made their way, and then he could return to the life he’d known for so long. This experience would become a blip, like so many others, a memory of would-be companionship. A different place. It seemed Mirai was right, but for the wrong reasons.

     Seiken thought suddenly of Yume’s sweet smile, of Yoshiki’s brash and rowdy friendliness, and of Kaiya’s gentle warmth. He shook his head, realizing what difference it did make. They would worry… that’s what made it different. Unlike all the others, these were people that would not release him. Yume would grow anxious and sad. Yoshiki would storm about, thinking he could discover the Decameron’s whereabouts by force of will alone. And Kaiya… Kaiya would follow him to the edge of the world just to see that he was safe. He owed it to them to go back, to return and confess his failure. He’d lose them too. They’d still become no more than a flash of light in his life of desolation, but at least he could spare them the trouble of wondering what became of him.

     With a quick nod to himself, Seiken turned around, determined to return to the place where he’d been waiting and face whatever consequences awaited him. He strode along purposefully for a few minutes until a sound stopped him in his tracks. It was a groan, coming from the gaping doorway of one of the buildings that still stood along the block.

     “Hello?” Seiken called, moving closer. “Who’s there?”

     No reply was forthcoming, and he rushed forward.

     There was a man lying on the pavement, in the doorway. He clutched at his side, which bled heavily.

     “I’ll help you,” Seiken said softly, kneeling down. “I’m Decameron. Don’t worry-”

     He stopped speaking as he gently moved the man’s hand away from his wound. Memories of Yume flooded him as he looked down on the blackened flesh, a darkness that spread on the pale skin even as he watched. Frantically, he pulled out his tools and went to work, but the poison spread quickly. Unable to cope with the defeat, Seiken pressed on until it was very obvious that the man had died. His eyes were open, staring, but unlike other lifeless eyes Seiken had closed before, these still seemed to watch something. What it was, he didn’t know.

     “I’m sorry,” he whispered, reaching out and closing the staring eyes.

     He heard a soft sloshing sound behind him. He suddenly realized, to his disgust, that he knelt in a pool of blood. Looking over his shoulder, he saw a number of pale, staring people- each with a black, gaping wound- shambling toward him. For a moment, he wondered what this portended, until he felt his air cut off by a hand around his throat. The corpse beside him no longer had its eyes closed.

    

     Yume stumbled, coughing. The air was difficult to breathe, smoggy and stinking. Each breath she drew burned her lungs. The bits of horizon that were visible where swaths of buildings had fallen glowed eerily, as though something somewhere was burning.

     She was trying to make her way back to where they’d parked their bikes, in the hope that Yoshiki had already returned there. Why had he left her? It was so unlike him. So lost in her worry, she hadn’t noticed the change in the air at first. Yet as the smog thickened, she became aware of it.

     She clutched her chest, laboring to breathe in the noxious air. Where was everyone? She couldn’t seem to find her way back. What if they were out looking for her? Yume realized with horrible gravity that no one could survive very long breathing the air as it was.

     They’ll keep looking… They wouldn’t give up. We’ll all die here if I can’t find them.

     Mustering every ounce of strength she had, Yume pulled herself up and pushed herself along the still deserted streets.

 

     It’s snowing.

     Mirai gazed up with wonder and watched the snowflakes as they drifted lazily from the sky. The air had grown cold, and frost rimed the shattered city. Mirai’s teeth chattered and she shivered in her long robe.

     “Seiken?” she called tentatively into the dark. He didn’t answer. “Uneme?”

     Nothing.

     “Quen?”

     The night remained silent, snowflakes falling faster as the wind picked up.

     “Anybody?”

     This is very strange weather.

     What was it that they’d told her to do if she was lost? Mirai scrunched up her face with the strain of trying to remember. And she wasn’t lost exactly… she could probably just go back the way she came. Did that make it different? It probably did.

     I guess I’ll just go back… Why is it that I think I can’t?

     After walking about a block in the eddying snowfall, realization descended upon her.

     Oh, right… because I’m in. Well, better make the best of it then.

 

    The pavement beneath Kaiya’s feet grew hot. At first, the warmth was a welcome thing in the chill autumn evening, but as it grew in intensity it burned his feet through his rush sandals. The air began to feel warm as well, a dry heat, strange in this part of the country. It wasn’t until the heat became oppressive that Kaiya stopped, puzzled.

     What’s going on? He wondered.

     Something was terribly wrong, that much was for certain. He felt completely displaced, as though his soul had shifted without his knowledge. This change in the air- he had the impression that it was more than simply his body that felt it. Stilling himself, he allowed all sensations to flow inward, allowing him to gauge the situation.

     “Don’t bother,” a voice said softly in the dark. “It’s already worse than what you’d assumed.”

     A woman was walking toward him out of the darkness. She was slightly tall and graceful, her long dark hair flowing behind her.

     “Hironah?”

     “No such luck,” the woman answered coolly. As she drew nearer, Kaiya could see that she was not Hironah, but was in many ways reminiscent of her.

     “Who are you?” He asked, confused.

     The woman smiled at him. She was beautiful in the way that Hironah was beautiful- dark hair and pale skin, a soft warmth breaking through strength. She drew very near Kaiya, until he could smell her- a scent composed of all the scents of things he’d loved in life.

     “I am your jailer,” she spoke softly, reaching out to touch his frozen face.

     Dizzied by her overwhelming presence, he repeated,

     “Jailer?”

     “Look.” She showed him the hammer and stakes she held her in hands. “I’ll nail you to the ground, where you will bake all day and all night in the heat of every sun there is. For you,” she stroked his skin, “have lived your life in darkness. You turned from the light, giving all your thoughts and love to the shadows. I will pin you here, making you look upon the light forever. And every day I’ll come to you and kiss your blistered lips to remind you of the love that died in your darkness.”

     I know where I am.

     Shock descended upon Kaiya, allowing for a quick re-adjustment of his spirit.

     How can this be?

     How this came to be mattered little now. What mattered most was whether or not he was alone in this experience, or if the others were trapped in this somehow. If they were, what could he do to save them from their fates? Was it even possible to save himself?

     “Is it you who is displaced, or is it me?” Kaiya asked softly, forcing himself to remain calm, focused.

     “That is unimportant,” the woman answered. She drew him down onto the burning pavement with the gentle touch of a lover. He realized that he was still held in thrall. If he was unable to break from her soon, he would remain here forever. He tried to ignore her, to focus on the sensations in the air, on the place itself. Suddenly, the answer appeared in his mind- so clear and simple.

     Kaiya peered down at his own body under his robes. The scars of years of mishaps and mayhem were still there, barely visible in the dark. He spent a moment with his gaze plastered on the most recent of them- the ugly gash in his chest where Seiken had taken him apart and put him back together again. It obscured a far older scar… one from his earliest years before his time at Kamitouki. He knew the answer.

     The woman followed his gaze, then reached out and softly traced the scar with her finger. Her touch made his blood burn.

     “You were never anybody’s hero, Kaiya. You wasted so much time, so much of yourself, trying to be. You burned the years of your life away… but none of them needed you. You always knew that. You have never been needed. If you’d never existed, it wouldn’t have made any difference, save your own pain.”

     She pushed him down further, until he was lying on the road, asphalt burning his skin. She straddled his prone body and smiled down at him.

     “You belong to me now.”

     She bent low over him… He was slipping, losing control, his attention focused solely on this strange and beautiful woman who was everything he’d ever loved. She was the sound of the surf and the sight of the star-dusted sky. She was the wind as it whipped by, the scent of falling autumn leaves. She was the laughter of the one he loved the most.

     “You’re mine.”

     She kissed him, and he kissed her back, lost in pain and adoration. He felt himself consumed, immolated in lust and love and torture. His soul was forsaken, given in exchange for her attention. He would not be released from his prison. He gave up his struggle and surrendered.

     Until he recognized the shape of the name he was whispering over and over again in his dazed passion, the name of the one for whom he’d tried so hard to live all these years, the one for whom he fought, the one who made each of his days worth every bit of struggle. Was she lost here as well? If she was, his failure would damn her to an eternity of torture as well. Kaiya might have been able to accept such a fate for himself, but to know that she was to join him in damnation would bring his heart more anguish than anything the woman above him could ever hope to. His soul was filled once again with his bittersweet and unrequited love, and he knew that failure was not an option. His whisper became a scream, calling out that name into the hollow darkness.

     “Hironah!”

     Deep within, he felt the snap of the woman’s control being broken. He lived on, it was as he feared, every bit as bad as what he feared. He pushed the woman from him and stood, looking down on her.

     “You don’t belong here,” he said flatly.

     “But I am here.” She was still fighting for control. He could feel that. She wouldn’t have it, for now he understood completely.

     “I’m leaving you,” he said in calm tones, wondering what it was he could do to make this statement a reality.

     “So you say,” the woman replied with a smile. “Go ahead and try. I can wait.”

     Kaiya would not allow her confidence to shake him. He could still feel her will pushing against his, and while he focused some of his energy on holding her at bay, he flicked through all his lessons, all his knowledge, looking for the key. Yet what could he possibly have learned that would help him break free of this impossible scenario? Was there anything at all that could help him deal with something that could not be? Patiently, ignoring his emotions- the urgency for speed, the despair in knowing there may be nothing he could do- he searched even the most mundane corners of his mind.

     A slight smile played at the corner of his mouth… Perhaps he’d figured out a solution. His eyes blazed as he laughed. Failure meant death, of course, but it was worth a try. From a certain point of view, he was already dead anyway. In fury, the strange woman lunged at him, a stake poised to plunge into his heart. He brushed her away easily.

     With a look of triumph, Kaiya chanted the ancient words he’d been taught, slashing at the air. He felt his hand catch on the fabric of this impossible place and tear it. This is where the true test would be… would he be ripped apart as well? Rejoicing in the familiar rush of adrenaline that came from grinning in the face of death, he drew a breath and waited.

 

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